The Wedding of River Song

Prequel: That bloody nursery rhyme is playing again, as a pair of eyepatch-wearing soldiers inspect some Silence in a water tank. Then we see River, also wearing an eyepatch, lurking menacingly near an Egyptian sarcophagus. It’s all very atmospheric but a little bit dull; it’s more of a mood piece than a preview of the plot.

After a series like no other, with its various long-running storylines and the bloody great gap in the middle, comes a series finale like no other. For a start, it’s only one episode long, but at the same time it feels like the final chapter of a story that’s been going on for ages, finally tying up threads that have been dangling since the premiere. It’s a different way of telling The Doctor’s story, and one that’s not universally popular, but of which I am a big fan.

Besides, it’s not all heavy complicated stuff – this alternate universe where all of history is happening at once looks like great fun. Steam trains coming out of The Gherkin, Charles Dickens on BBC News, and even the pterodactyls from Torchwood having their render files dusted off. Churchill’s back again, he’s got a Silurian doctor and he’s keeping a bearded Doctor locked in the Tower of London. What’s not to love?

There’s also one of those big, varied, expensive-looking montages that Moffat likes to wheel out for the important episodes, which includes a tiny Dalek cameo and a heavily made-up Mark Gatiss as some sort of alien viking. It feels epic and exciting, but then the mood is punctured by news of the Brigadier. It’s a fair indication of Courtney’s standing that he’s the only actor whose off-screen passing has directly impacted the plot of a Doctor Who episode. I’m glad that Sarah Jane is still out there saving the world, even if Elisabeth Sladen isn’t, but with the Brigadier, being that much older and having lived a full life, it feels right to give his story a full stop. It’s so heartbreaking that the Doctor wanted to see him one more time after all these years, but couldn’t.

This moment also provides the impetus for the story to kick up a notch, leading to a glorious return for the Ponds, or at least alternate, eyepatch-wearing versions of the Ponds. The fact that those eyepatches turn out not to be a straightforward evil-person-indicator is a clever twist, as is Amy remembering far more than The Doctor expected her to, causing him to cut short his big timey-wimey speech. It’s a reunion that’s played for laughs rather than high drama, and it works – those two are such good friends that they’re just happier when they’re together, regardless of the circumstances, or the fact that they’ve never actually met in this universe.

The Rory stuff is cute too. I was all poised to update the Rory Williams Death Counter – even The Silence comment on the fact that he’s always dying – until Amy realised who he was in the nick of time. She then kills Madame Kovarian in cold blood, which she’s later somewhat tortured about, but I reckon it was probably fair enough. She did steal her baby and turn her into a psychopathic killing machine. That’s not cricket.

Then the eponymous wedding happens and time is put right and The Doctor dies. He’s careful to point out to us that River won’t remember killing him, which is mightily convenient but does help to sort out any confusion I had as to her timeline. Her later chat with Amy clarifies that she often has to lie in order to avoid giving spoilers to people from her relative past – again, convenient for storytelling purposes, but I buy it.

In retrospect, including the Teselecter in the ‘Previously’ recap rather gives the game away. I can’t remember whether or not I figured it out in advance originally, but either way it’s a good, satisfying conclusion. It leaves the series at an intriguing crossroads, with The Doctor’s vow to stay in the shadows coming across as very McCoy, as does the notion that he planned this whole thing for his own mysterious purposes.

Like I say, not your normal finale – it’s more like a victory lap for the series, the magician revealing how he pulled off the trick. Luckily, I really like the series, and the wrapping-up this story provides is meticulous. It’s a shame it doesn’t end with Amy and Rory back on the TARDIS, but having previously moaned about too many questions being left unanswered, we’re left with just one. A big blue head in a box shouting “DOCTOR WHO” over and over again should be the final image of every series.

RATING: 9

HALF-SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 7.5

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 8.18

  • Seasons/Series watched: 32 of 36
  • Stories watched: 224 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 783 of 839

So yeah, the second half is not quite as good as the first, but not by as big a margin as I remembered. I think it’s improved by watching the two parts in much closer proximity; it’s a shame I had to sit through Torchwood in the middle, but the momentum still carried far better with a two-week gap than a two-and-a-half month one. Even so, this portion of the project seems very stop-start, veering wildly between various spin-offs and specials, without the stability of a big block of proper episodes for comfort. I’d best get used to it.

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Closing Time

I wasn’t looking forward to this one, despite not being too put off by James Corden last time round. That’s because in the meantime the Emmys happened, and now I actually hate James Corden, rather than merely intensely disliking him. You won’t kiss the Doctor but you’ll kiss Sean Spicer?

Consequently I found it much harder to like Craig this time, and it didn’t help that he was reinforcing the patriarchy with his useless dad stereotypes. Luckily, the Doctor speaking baby is a very rich seam, and his interactions with Alfie/Stormageddon were the highlight of the episode. That and the fact that Lynda Baron turns up, more than forty years after singing that bloody song.

Much like The Lodger, it’s a light and comedic palate cleanser before the big finale, only this time there’s Cybermen in it. Well, they’re barely in it, but that’s probably for the best at this stage. It’s such a shame that this era of Cybermen are so rubbish, as actually, a small band of survivors rebuilding themselves from scratch, using bits of kidnapped humans, is a brilliant premise for a Cyber story, but it lacks any of the visceral body horror that it would have had in the 60s, or which was so brilliantly reinstated in much more recent times.

I wasn’t sure about the Cybermats having big pointy teeth, nor with Craig once again saving the world via the power of love. The thing of Alfie crying being enough to snap Craig out of a Cyber-conversion, and Alfie subsequently “telling” the Doctor how proud he is of his dad, seems like it’s a lovely thing. But if the message is that it takes actually saving the world for babies to love their dads as much as they love their mums, what chance have the rest of us got?

Meanwhile, Amy and Rory turn up for about a minute, and they don’t even get to speak properly. Amy is a celebrity now, either a famous model or a perfume maker, or some combination of the two, it’s not quite clear. It’s also not quite clear when exactly any of this takes place. For the Doctor, it’s a day before he gets shot in Utah, so two hundred years must have passed for him since he dropped them off, but how long has it been for them, given that she’s had time to become famous? I thought at first that this episode could take place a few years in the future, but the newspaper says 2011, so I can only conclude that the Doctor (accidentally?) dropped them off a few years in their relative past, and that for a while there must have been two Amies and Rories knocking about.

Much neater is the segue into the finale, which involves the Doctor acquiring his stetson and his fancy TARDIS-blue stationery. The subsequent River scene left me slightly confused about her personal timeline – even when you’re watching it in order at a decent pace, it’s still bloody complicated – but I think that ought to be cleared up once I’m reminded of exactly what happens at Lake Silencio. Madame Kovarian and the Silence turning up was suitably scary and exciting, but the only improvement I’d have made would be to have the creepy nursery rhyme sung by Lynda Baron. The Doctor’s in a cowboy hat, it would have been the ultimate call back.

RATING: 6

A Good Man Goes to War

Prequel: That big blue wheeler-dealer chap sells a Judoon’s brain to some hooded figures, before attempting to verify the rumours that they’d kidnapped the child of someone connected to the Doctor. That’s about it, so they pad it out with some very slow captions trailing the TX date.

Really, the only preview that you need is the cliffhanger from the previous episode, and the sense of urgency and epicness that runs throughout this story does not disappoint. I’m vehemently opposed to the notion of chopping a season in half – the eventual workload solution they found of simply dropping an episode a year yields much more satisfying results – but at least they made the format work to their advantage by having such a huge, gobsmacking episode to provide the mini-finale.

I’d forgotten entirely about the pre-titles encounter with the Cybermen, now thankfully rid of their Cybus branding, which is a step in the right direction. I love the fact that Rory got to be the big hero we see confronting them – his story across the last season and a half is that of someone stepping out of the background to fulfil his true potential, and that’s often driven by the desire to protect his wife and/or newly-discovered child. It’s corny, but it really works.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is raising an army by taking us to as many different locations as the budget will allow, and Moffat is careful to make the build-up in this episode as comedic as possible, to balance the heavy stuff to come. River’s punchline to the Stevie Wonder story is one of my favourite gags the show has ever done, and the concept of a Sontaran nurse is just brilliant. It will never not be funny to see Strax politely inform people of his intention to kill them, and he’s by far the most promising of all the new allies this episode introduces.

When the Doctor’s finally ready to sort this shit out, his supposed triumph is a joy to watch unfold. Moffat pulls off a trick that I more readily associate with RTD, of throwing as many returning characters or species on screen as possible – he did it in his first finale, of course, but I don’t think he ever quite did it in the same way as this again. Here we get fuckloads of Silurians and Judoon (thus answering my question from the other day about whether it was rare for Moff to bring back RTD creations), as well as unexpected and possibly unwarranted cameos from “Danny Boy” and Captain Avery, characters from two of the least good episodes of the Moffat era thus far.

Then the episode’s third phase – the Doctor’s fall – kicks in, and bloody hell, things get intense towards the end. I was surprised to see Strax as one of the casualties, given that he’s about to become a recurring character, but then I guess death isn’t much of a barrier when you’re talking about a race of clones in a time travel show. More expected was that the sweet and brave Doctor fangirl didn’t survive the encounter, and the realisation of what his name means to her people hits the Doctor – and us – hard.

I’m not sure I quite agree with River’s wider assessment that the Doctor is on dangerous ground and needs to mend his ways. It rang true when the Tenth Doctor went through a similar identity crisis, but the Eleventh Doctor so far has been firmly committed to non-violence wherever possible, and has largely resisted abusing his powers. But then, dramatically speaking, you need to drag him down before you pick him up again, and the revelation about River/Melody – as well as being very cleverly done – ended this rollercoaster on a high.

It’s hard to relive the impact that it had at the time; the promise that the mystery will be resolved is always in the background of this episode, which means it loses a certain something when you know full well what’s coming. But it still managed to make me a little emotional, due to the Doctor’s joy of learning that Melody would eventually be just fine, and the knowledge that he dedicates so much of his life to keeping her safe and happy. Although it must be a bit weird to be shagging your best friends’ daughter, especially if you’ve held her (and indeed spoken to her) as a baby.

Nevertheless, it’s a stunning and shocking episode, and well worth revisiting regardless of the lessened impact of the big reveal. My lack of memory of the finer details of these episodes is really paying off now, as they’re able to surprise me all over again. For example, I still don’t quite remember who Madame Kovarian is and what her motives are; you don’t find out very much here, and instead it’s nicely set up to be the mystery that runs through the second half of the season.

One thing that I did remember though, and that still remains as funny as ever, is the huge high-stakes drama ending with the next episode’s title being revealed, in huge impactful letters, as “LET’S KILL HITLER”. After all that the episode had put me through the first time I watched it, I ended up unable to process any of the emotional connotations due to five minutes of solid laughter.

RATING: 9

It feels wrong to be doing the milestone stuff at this juncture, but nevertheless:

HALF-SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 9

  • Seasons/Series watched: 31.54 of 36
  • Stories watched: 218 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 777 of 839

I hadn’t realised how good the first half of this series was. I mean, I knew I liked it, but wow, just look at that average rating. My memory is that the second half doesn’t quite live up to it, and will most likely bring the overall score down, but unfortunately I’m going to have to wait to find out. It’s as galling now as it is then – just when you’re ramped up to maximum excitement about Doctor Who, it disappears for a while. Worse still, the filling of this Series 6 sandwich is not particularly appetising.

The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People

The main thing I remember from the original broadcast is the quite extraordinary cliffhanger, so this rewatch was an opportunity to enjoy the finer details of the preceding 88 minutes, and it turns out this is quite the gem. It’s such a very Doctor Who-ish idea – a lot of shows would have an episode about human avatars going rogue, but not many would approach it with the aim of establishing doppleganger rights.

Like with earlier adventures with Silurians and later ones with Zygons, this is all about what it means to be human, along with allegories about equality and acceptance. But while there was certainly an element of “but who are the *real* monsters?” (it was telling that the human version of Cleaves was the one who fucked up the peace talks), a lot of the action relied on the assumption that Ganger = baddie. This might have seemed like having your cake and eating it, were it not for the later revelations, which we’ll get to.

It was a perfect set-up for some traditional cloning high-jinks, such as the group having secret Gangers in their midst, and Rory’s subplot with the multiple Jennifers ending up a bit like Red Dwarf‘s Psirens. It was a bit of a disappointment when the Gangers gained the ability to turn into Stretch Armstrong, and became more of a traditional straightforward monster. It’s a similar feeling I had with The Lazarus Experiment – a CGI creature to run away from isn’t as scary as something more human and creepy, in this case clones not knowing they’re clones, or the fear of your clone stealing your identity.

And of course, it was always leading up to the Doctor gaining a Ganger. Two Matt Smiths can only be a good thing, especially when one of them keeps quoting his former selves. As soon as our Doctor lost his shoes, I was looking out for them as an indicator of which was which, having forgotten the twist that they swapped over at some unspecified point in proceedings. I do wonder whether that was before or after one of them became violent towards Amy, because if that was the actual Doctor, that seems a bit much, regardless of how important a lesson he was teaching her.

But then, of course, that wasn’t the actual Amy. I noticed they were very clear to establish that the real humans retain the memory of what happens to their Gangers, ensuring that everything that “Amy” has experienced so far this season matters, regardless of when the switch took place. The big reveal ripples back to recontextualise much of what goes before – the aforementioned issue about the narrative relying on the audience believing Gangers are always baddies is no longer an issue, because the episode’s all about the Doctor teaching us, via Amy, that our assumption was wrong.

Best of all, it means that the whole adventure was brought about by the Doctor being a bit Machiavellian, hiding his true intentions from his companions and the audience in order to serve his own secretive purposes. It’s basically Smith acting like McCoy, which is a winning combination, and this is a story that’s much better the second time around.

And yeah, the sight of Amy being turned into goop, and then of the real Amy waking up nine months pregnant with Eye Patch Lady as a midwife, is rather an enduring image. Such a stunning cliffhanger at the end of a two-parter that it almost feels like a reverse Utopia situation, but it is in fact something very different. Bring on Doctor Who‘s first ever mid-season finale…

RATING: 9

The Curse of the Black Spot

Prequel: A beardy Hugh Bonneville squeezes out a captain’s log, stating that his ship is stranded at sea and that they’re being menaced by a dark, mysterious force. He signs off by telling us he fears he and his entire crew are doomed to die here. It doesn’t make the episode look like much fun, in stark contrast to the Next Time trailer that promised us yo-ho-ho pirate antics like swashbuckling and walking the plank.

Turns out that all that fun stuff happens within the first five minutes, and then it gets very dark very quickly. Things escalate at an alarming pace, as the Siren picks off her victims one after another, and it doesn’t leave any time for us to care about any of the people that are being killed off. The fact that literally everything is dangerous – the slightest cut, bruise, burn or illness – makes things paradoxically less exciting. Why should I care about any of these characters when they could stub their toe and it’d be all over? When the TARDIS goes missing too, the odds seem impossible, and we’re still only twenty minutes in.

The Siren, of course, has the face of Lily Cole, which is a bit strange; one of those guest stars who’s so famous (for things other than acting) that it’s hard to see past the real person. She doesn’t really have much to do, other than prancing around elusively on a wire, and very occasionally making a scary face. The best thing about her as a monster was the way she has the same effect on her victims as half an eccie.

Therefore the main guest star was the aforementioned Huge Bonneville, and his beard. I’d forgotten that Avery was real pirate, until I read it on Wikipedia just now, and the references to him in The Smugglers must have completely passed me by. Turns out he’s a bit of a twat, causing his own son to be taken by the Siren because he couldn’t bear to let go of his stolen gold. This in turn leads to…

THE RORY WILLIAMS DEATH COUNTER: 3. Well, you think it’s a death at first, but it turns out that actually everything’s fine anyway, everyone’s just been transported to another dimension or some shit. And despite Avery doing his best to fuck things up by needlessly shooting at the Siren, it turns out that she was a goody all along. It’s a clever reveal, but it does make for an anti-climactic resolution.

The only remaining snag is that Rory is on the brink of drowning, and I’m wondering whether that moment where you think Amy has failed to resuscitate him counts as death #4. It was definitely around this time that Rory being seemingly dead every other week started to become a thing, and I think it’s this episode that first drew people’s attention to it.

But that all gets sorted, and we end with Huge Bonneville, his full crew and a tiny child literally becoming Space Pirates. It’s all very daft, this episode, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I mean, it’s all sort of fine, but it’s evidently nothing special or particularly memorable – all that I remembered of it in the last six years was Lily Cole titting about not doing much, and I imagine that will be the case when I’ve forgotten about this rewatch too.

Oh yes, and Madame Eye Patch showed up again, and Amy flashed back to the Doctor getting shot, and then the Doctor did another pregnancy test on her. You know how the scan always oscillates between the two outcomes? Does that mean that she’s simultaneously pregnant and not pregnant, like it’s some sort of Schrödinger’s foetus, or does the test just take *ages* to deliver the result? It’s entirely possible that they answered that six years ago and I’ve forgotten…

RATING: 7

The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon

Prequel: For the first time since Series 2’s Tardisodes, several episodes of Series 6 came with a little online prequel. Not all of them, just the important ones, so naturally the premiere gets the treatment. It’s a short glimpse of an impressive Oval Office set, in which Richard Nixon takes a phone call from a little girl, denies the existence of monsters, and then completely fails to notice the Silent standing behind him. It gives you the sense of an Empty Child vibe, but with Richard Nixon instead of Richard Wilson.

The episode/series proper then kicks off with the Doctor getting the gang back together. I’m not a fan of companions living separate lives from the Doctor – life in the TARDIS should be their whole life, uninterrupted – but there will be much more egregious examples of this to come, so I’ll leave it for now. Besides, it’s all worth it for the glimpse of the Doctor trying to get their attention by invading a Laurel & Hardy film.

And then bam – ten minutes into the series, the Doctor is killed and his body cremated. It’s certainly a bold start. It was notable enough that the series started with a two-parter, deviating from RTD’s template for the first time. By the end of the first episode, Amy has revealed she’s pregnant and shot a little girl. This is definitely not a kids’ show, this is Moffat let loose and growing in confidence, taking the show into a different, darker and more complex direction, putting his stamp on it. Personally, I’m not concerned about trying to figure out whose version of Who is better – for me, both the RTD and Moffat eras were almost entirely brilliant, and both had their peaks and troughs.

Back to the story in hand, and you have to say it looks absolutely stunning. It’s another step forward from Series 5, as the new era gains its unique visual style too. The location stuff in the States is obviously a highlight, as is the design of The Silence. The way they have the outline of a face without any actual features, and the way they casually twist their mouths round while they’re zapping you, is the stuff of nightmares.

(Incidentally, is the race called The Silence, or are they each individually called a Silent, and so collectively known as The Silents? The former seems to be officially accepted, but I much prefer the latter, which is the way I originally heard it.)

There are several notable inclusions in the guest cast, the most shocking of which is Trojan from Gladiators as the Secret Service agent who takes Amy to the toilet. Then you’ve got Kerry Shale, of godawful Red Dwarf X voices fame, and two generations of the Shepherd family as Canton, a particularly kick-ass one-off companion figure, who even gets his own “it’s bigger on the inside” moment.

You’d have thought that the headline would be the presence of Richard Nixon, but he’s effectively just an incidental character in this celebrity historical – the point is that you’ve got the Doctor pissing about in the Oval Office around the time of the moon landing, and it just so happens that the President is Nixon. It seems apt that such a terrible scumbag isn’t afforded to opportunity to be a hero, something which the Doctor himself acknowledges. And he later advises Nixon to record everything that happens in his office, thus bringing about his eventual downfall. Good man.

The main thing you take from this series opener is a huge sense of scale – even the second episode has a big showy-offy pre-titles sequence, something usually only reserved for the start of a finale. It promises much for the coming year, seeding Madame Kovarian (or “Eye Patch Lady”, as she’s listed in the credits) already – another Red Dwarf alumni making an appearance in the creepiest of creepy children’s homes. There’s lots of foreshadowing involving Amy’s possible pregnancy and the little girl in the spacesuit – I know how it all ends up, but I can’t remember all of the details, so once again it’s fun to fill in all the blanks.

Speaking of which, River Song Timeline Watch: She’s quite unequivocal that all their adventures take place in the opposite order, which is obviously complicated by the fact that this adventure also contains a 200-year-older version of the Doctor. He’s a lot more comfortable around her than we’ve ever seen him before, but when “our” Doctor shows up, he’s deeply distrustful of her, perhaps more so than he was last time, to emphasise the difference between the two Doctors.

It’s interesting that River’s nightmare scenario – seeing the Doctor and him not knowing who she is – is something that we’ve already seen. But it’s worth re-examining now that we know River better, because we’re starting to care about her more than the Doctor does, and so we get the emotional beats from considering it from her point of view. Their first/last kiss is bittersweet to us, because it’s sweet for him and bitter for her.

So yes, there is much to talk about with this story, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that it harks back to The Lodger of all things – even the seemingly throwaway format-breaking episodes are important to remember in Moffat’s era. The only other thing to discuss is the resolution, which is perfect because, in a similar way to Vincent and the Doctor, it establishes that what we see in the episode is also what we see in real life, thanks to the Doctor’s influence – the actual footage of the moon landing really does contain a message from a Silent, it’s just that we can’t remember seeing it.

Oh, and the regenerating child is brilliant and shocking, even when you know it’s coming. This series is not without its flaws – not least the fact it was chopped in half, which we’ll come to – but none of them are evident in its opener, which stands up as a real high point of Matt Smith’s tenure.

RATING: 10